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District administrators and staff gather during a family engagement meeting on Jan. 12, 2023, in Pueblo. The Colorado Education Initiative is partnering with five Colorado school districts, the Colorado Department of Education and other organizations to create a framework for families to adapt models of inclusive programming within schools. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

PUEBLO — The first year that Sonya Jefferson and her son, Jacoby, moved back to Denver, he spent almost as much time in the principal’s office as he did in class at Smith Renaissance School. The elementary school “had nothing good to say” about Jacoby, Jefferson said, as he showed up to school miserable and would often flee his classroom or be escorted by his teacher to the principal’s office.

Underneath Jacoby’s angst was a lot for a fourth grader to deal with. Not only had he just moved across the country from Georgia, but his family was also grieving the loss of a loved one and he was going through some major health issues, said Jefferson, adding that the school offered their family minimal support.

“It wasn’t pretty,” said Jefferson, whose son is now a freshman at Northfield High School. “I felt very let down, and I was looking at just homeschooling him.”

That turbulent school year taught the mother the importance of advocating for her child and the two-way communication that needs to flow between schools and homes.

“We should be helping each other instead of tearing each other apart, and that is vital to each other’s success in any school district,” she said. “We have to help each other.”

The goal of getting parents more closely connected with schools has driven five Colorado school districts to take a close look at how they can better fold parents into the work they do. With the help of a $1 million grant from the state and a $5 million grant from the federal government, the new Colorado Statewide Family Engagement Center will help the districts rethink how parents are involved in their child’s education and the ways schools team up with them. The effort includes Pueblo School District 60, Denver Public Schools, Greeley-Evans School District 6, Mesa County Valley School District 51 and Alamosa School District. 

The pandemic exposed the need for stronger ties and more consistent communication between parents and schools, particularly as schools closed and many parents stepped into the role of teacher, experts say.

“I think parents for the first time got a glimpse into their child’s classroom in a very real way as everything went virtual for so many districts,” said Tracy Teater, national director of community impact at the National Center for Families Learning. The nonprofit, which focuses on ending poverty through education and by working with families, educators and community-based organizations, is assisting the five districts in figuring out how to connect with families and cater to their needs.

The pandemic also widened gaps between many families and their schools across the country, Teater added, as teachers and administrators didn’t hear from entire populations of students for months.

“There has to be a different way of gaining trust with families and engaging with those relationships in a new way so that that doesn’t happen,” she said. “If you put that infrastructure in place at the beginning, then the work is actually easier for everybody.”

Both parents and schools are generally willing to work together, Teater said, “but what we often see is there’s a lack of process in how to do that in new ways that support equity in education.”

From left: Tiffany Grays, Stacey Cohen, and Lori Nebelsick-Gullett brainstorm “post-COVID” data components of public education during one of the group’s first family engagement meetings at Pueblo’s District 60 administration building on Jan. 12, 2023. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

“Family engagement is sometimes looked upon as an add-on or something nice to have,” she said. “COVID has illuminated the fact that schools, families and communities must work together in a different way to be able to improve outcomes.”

Each of the five districts will have its own center, which they are planning with the help of a  one-year, $1 million grant from Gov. Jared Polis’ Response, Innovation, and Student Equity Fund. The grant program invests money into struggling schools and districts. 

One cluster of districts will begin leveraging dollars from a competitive federal five-year $5 million Statewide Family Engagement Center grant to build on their work to engage families by the end of the spring, said Landon Mascareñaz, vice president of community partnerships at the Colorado Education Initiative. The nonprofit, which focuses on improving Colorado’s public education system and creating greater equity, is bringing together the five districts to learn from one another as they work to better engage parents and caregivers.

Last week, CEI convened the districts along with the National Center for Families Learning, the Black Parent Network and the Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition over two days in Pueblo to begin planning the center’s future, which includes the creation of an advisory group. Mascareñaz said the hope is to build a model of family engagement from the cross section of districts involved — with resources provided by the Colorado Department of Education — so that other Colorado districts can eventually replicate the ways they connect with families.

The initiative asks districts “how to reimagine how they open up to caregivers and families in our post-pandemic world,” Mascareñaz said, adding that one of the center’s priorities will revolve around promoting new kinds of communication between parents, caregivers and educators. Direct conversations between families and teachers have become increasingly important, he said, at a time some parents have called for book bans, raised questions over curriculum and criticized teachers’ approaches to tackling sensitive topics in the classroom, such as race and gender identity.

When districts make room for more conversations between families and educators, Mascareñaz said, “many of the questions get answered there before they become larger dilemmas for everyone to get involved in.”

Pausing and listening to parents

In Mesa County Valley School District 51, schools have seen more students struggling with thoughts of suicide since the pandemic started, said Tracy Gallegos, director of equity and inclusion for the district.

“We’ve seen mental health needs of students really spike,” Gallegos said. “And so we need to be able to definitely partner up with our parents to address those mental health needs.”

Parents often “have a wealth of knowledge that we have done a poor job tapping into,” he said, adding that parent input has only become more critical as kids’ needs have become more varied and complex.

Gallegos envisions a family engagement center that reaches all parents — not just those who already play a proactive part in their child’s education. The district must improve the ways it connects with parents, particularly when it comes to populations of kids facing “predictable achievement gaps,” he said.

“We’re not doing a great job really of creating the environment that we need to bring in parents and make them want to come in and support,” Gallegos said. “We need to make sure that we’re doing better at that.”

Pueblo School District 60 aims to fasten families and schools together in more positive ways, particularly for students transitioning from elementary to middle school and middle school to high school. 

A key question on the mind of Andy Burns, executive director of student support services for the district: How can the district and schools help students adjust and have a promising experience from the get-go?

One idea is to give students a backpack so they’re equipped for classes. Another strategy centers on making home visits to students before they start at their new school so that “when they show up at school, they’ve got some familiar faces they’ve already seen,” Burns said.

That approach runs counter to what schools across the country more commonly use home visits for, he noted, with many schools making home visits when a student is truant.

The district is “trying to flip that dialogue so that the first encounter and visit is a positive one and (ensure) that we’re setting up a student for success,” Burns said.

Pueblo School District 60 will use the new family engagement center to examine how to address student mental health issues, the challenges of keeping high school students engaged in their schoolwork after the pandemic deflated the motivation of many, and how to help prepare teens for life after high school. The district is jumpstarting its efforts related to college and career readiness, with plans to host events that will help students through financial aid for college and assist families with completing their taxes. Additionally, the district is pulling together a spring college and career fair for students from the district and surrounding communities, both to educate students about different colleges and to walk them through financial aid. The fair will include information specific to undocumented families, Burns said.

Stacey Cohen of Mesa County School District, left, brainstorms guiding principles of public education during one of the group’s first family engagement meetings at Pueblo’s District 60 administration building on Jan. 12, 2023. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The new center will also give the district a chance to reinvent how it responds to families’ needs and identifies those needs in the first place — which begins simply by listening, he said.

“Rather than us taking the lead and making assumptions, either accurate or faulty, this is an opportunity for us to fully engage with the community so that we can listen to them, hear their needs and work with them as opposed to assuming what (they) need,” Burns said.

Pausing and listening has become one of ways for Greeley-Evans School District 6 has begun improving how it builds relationships with parents and families and stays tuned to their needs, said David Reyes, family center coordinator with the district.

Staff have started conducting home visits — known as “voice visits” — and talked to families in “empathy interviews” to ask them one on one about what is important for them and their student’s education, Reyes said.

“Different family generations have different needs and also different ethnic groups have different needs as well,” he said.

Determining how to partner with families of students of color as well as homeless families and those with a single parent is especially pressing for the five districts behind the new center.

The Black Parent Network, a statewide group of parents who advocate for Black students and families with a goal of equity, is supporting the districts in engaging with parents of color and making sure the services they offer are sensitive to different backgrounds.

“It takes more to engage with Black families,” said Tiffany Grays, a member of the Black Parent Network who is directing the organization’s efforts and grant funding for the statewide family engagement centers. “When we’re talking about immigrant Black families, they have a different set of needs than African American families.”

Black immigrant families often have to overcome language barriers and, more than anything, are grateful that their child can get an education, Grays said, while African American students and families are grappling with decades of historical trauma and racism.

“The first step has to be acknowledgement and healing, and we have to do that so that we can build trust, so that we can have that real meaningful, authentic partnership in this work because getting a parent to show up once is difficult in and of itself,” she said. “But that’s not really authentic engagement because we want parents to continuously show up. Parents want to do that, but they’re excluded.”

Parents of color who are trying to advocate for their children are left out of school conversations — oftentimes more than other parents, Grays said.

“Parents are pushed out of the process, and so schools, districts opening the door and saying, ‘Hey, we’re ready to recognize, we’re ready to acknowledge, we’re ready to rebuild or build trust’ is such an amazing, hopeful and inspiring place for them to be.”

Jefferson, whose son, Jacoby, struggled to find his place at Smith Renaissance School, saw a significant improvement in his school experience while he attended Denver Green School Northfield for sixth, seventh and eighth grades. School leaders committed to creating a diverse environment, with students and staff from a mix of racial and economic backgrounds. Her son was never left out, said Jefferson, who is also involved with the Black Parent Network.

Now, she maintains as much communication as she can with his teachers and administrators at Northfield High School, with phone calls, emails, letters and visits when she has time.

“The stronger the ties the school (has) with the community, business owners and families,” Jefferson said, “(the more) they’re going to put out phenomenal kids.”

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...